MADISON, Wis. — In the end, what Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan wanted most was some accountability to be taken on the part of a former player.
That’s the summation of a wild week in Madison that culminated Thursday with Badgers freshman forward Jarrod Uthoff meeting with school administrators as part of a transfer appeal process.
In return, Uthoff had his “permission to contact” restrictions lifted on any schools outside the Big Ten.
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Only days earlier, Uthoff found himself restricted by Ryan from contacting 26 schools — the entire Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference, plus Florida, Iowa State and Marquette — after announcing his decision to transfer from Wisconsin.
The move divided folks into two camps as the debate raged in sports circles all week.
Ryan looked mean-spirited in selecting an unusually high number of schools to block. He further dug a hole in the eyes of pundits after defending his stance Thursday morning by insisting that hundreds of other coaches and programs had done the same thing before, seemingly giving him a free pass to follow suit.
Uthoff came across as silly for informing Ryan of his transfer intentions April 12 by phone while the coach was on vacation with his wife, rather than having a face-to-face conversation. He also never spoke with Ryan again over the next week, seemingly giving Ryan cause to question Uthoff’s motives.
At this stage, who is right is immaterial. Both parties could have handled the situation better. What’s important is that Thursday’s outcome was the best possible scenario for all parties.
Contrary to some scathing national columns in the past week, Ryan is not a bad guy. After Uthoff informed him of the transfer decision, Ryan sought council from at least 10 different coaches as to what the best solution was for the problem. Among the responses, he heard from coaches saying some programs had restricted upwards of 100 schools.
Ryan did not go that direction. He merely wanted to protect his program from having to play games against Uthoff in the future. And he also wanted Uthoff to explain his reasons for wanting to attend a particular school. The only way to cause such a conversation was to restrict schools and force Uthoff to speak with school officials Thursday, though that didn’t include Ryan because he wasn’t part of the appeal process.
Ryan did what he thought was in the best interests of the university. Equally reasonable, Uthoff did what he thought was in the best interests of his college basketball career, after deciding he wanted a program that better fit his skill set.
Ryan said he had never experienced a player coming to him with a list of potential transfer schools in his 40 years of coaching. He said during his 11 seasons at Wisconsin, Uthoff was just the second player to request a transfer. The first, Mickey Perry, transferred to Dayton — a non-power-six school — and caused no rift between player and coach.
“I’m a little confused because I’ve never had something like this,” Ryan said Thursday night. “But what is it that we did or didn’t do that doesn’t follow the letter of the law? The letter of the rule? If somebody knows a better way for the University of Wisconsin to at least have the opportunity to talk to a young man, whether it’s the coach — which wasn’t going to happen and wasn’t my choice — or the administration. Now if somebody here has a better idea for me, throw it out there.”
What rankled folks across the country was Ryan’s insistence on restricting non-Big Ten schools that might not necessarily even play Wisconsin. Iowa State, for example, has no ties to the Badgers, though Uthoff is an Iowa native. It worth nothing, however, that such a practice is not against NCAA rules.
Perhaps Ryan’s decision came off as a petty attempt to cause Uthoff trouble, but the lifted restrictions should make that a moot point.
Ryan continued to insist Thursday night that he wasn’t the only coach to place restrictions on a player transfer, and he’s right. Michigan coach John Beilein had three players transfer out of the program last month. And he prefers that former players not transfer to any Big Ten program or any other school on Michigan’s schedule over the next two seasons — though that is not always a hard-and-fast rule.
“I didn’t think I was playing some kind of jumbled puzzle here,” Ryan said. “And why was that insinuated? That’s what I don’t understand.”
Thursday’s outcome was the end to a messy week that put Wisconsin basketball at the forefront of the national sports discourse in a way the program certainly didn’t want. But in the end, both parties achieved their goals. And that’s what matters most.